The painful search for reminders of Radovan

Continuing his series from the former Yugoslavia, Robert Fisk tries to find comfort for a grieving mother
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The Independent Online
Sanski Most - Radojka Todorovic had told us that she and her husband had fled from their home at 14A Braca Jugovic street, that the Muslims who now lived there were kind, and that her missing son's photograph still lay in the house.

Her tears made it impossible to refuse her plea to retrieve it. But the Muslims who captured the town almost a year ago had renamed some of the roads; and many of those same Muslims had been driven from the very area in which the Serb Todorovic family now lived, in the "cleansed" farmland of north-western Bosnia. Their hearts would not be warmed by my story of Radojka Todorovic's grief as she tried to identify the remains of her only son in Banja Luka's warehouse of death.

Sanski Most was a shared town in the pre-war days of old Yugoslavia, and it did not take long to find a policeman who remembered the old Braca Jugovic street; turn right after the bridge, Radojka Todorovic had told us, and you'll find the house after 800 metres, a single-storey villa with an outhouse at the back, the upper floor reached by a wooden staircase.

The Muslim policeman mentioned the bridge and number 14A stood as Radojka described it, white-walled beside a garden of fruit trees with a bench below the outhouse stairs. Mustafa Mahic was sitting on the bench and he wasn't happy.

"Todorovic? Todorovic?" he asked, frowning and looking at his son. "They were some of the worst of the Serb war criminals, we know the name well." A common name, I mumbled, as he knew well. Of course, the Todorovic family was large, but Radojka and her husband, Nicola, and their missing son were not war criminals.

I described, as the two men listened to me in a cold silence, how I had watched the couple trying to identify the heap of bones and flesh in Banja Luka's awful makeshift mortuary the previous day, how their only son Radovan had been a student until forced to join up on 21 August last year, only to disappear at the front 18 days' later.

I had seen his student papers and military documents, I said. He had never been a criminal. There was a young daughter, Visnja. The mother wanted only the family papers and photographs, along with a snapshot of Radovan taken four months before he left home for the last time, celebrating his graduation, along with his girlfriend.

"Who killed him?" Mustafa Mahic asked. The Croats, I said truthfully, and the hardness in his face softened as if he had suddenly grown older than his 71 years. He pointed at his chest. "I was in the Manjaca camp," he said. "So was my son." I had feared this. Like most of the survivors of the Serb ethnic "cleansing" of Prijedor and Kozarac, he had been sent to one of three camps, the least terrible but murderous, none the less.

I had visited Manjaca myself in 1992 and seen the wraith-like prisoners, forced to wear military clothes, kicked and beaten when visitors were not present, occasionally bludgeoned to death. "I don't know how I survived," Mustafa Mahic said. "What is Kozarac like now?" he asked.

It was pointless to lie. I had just driven up into his village on the other side of the old front line, to look at the wreckage of the 1992 Serb assault on the Muslims of north-west Bosnia. Every home had gone, I said. Torched, gutted, the farmlands overgrown, the roads broken.

Mahic nodded. "I know," he said. It had been a test. Then his son motioned to the staircase that led to the upper floor of the outhouse: "The only things we found here were up there."

In the attic of the building lay a pile of papers. They were pathetic; copies of dust-covered women's magazines, a history of Marxist ideology in cyrillic script, a 1991 newspaper, a child's geometry and algebra book. Beneath them, I found a framed photograph of a little girl sitting in a school classroom, smiling shyly at the camera as she sat on a bench in a pink dress. Beside it was a heap of exercise books, each clearly entitled in biro: "Visnja Todorovic." But there was no photograph of Radovan.

"That's all there was but you're welcome to look for some more," Mustafa Mahic said. We rummaged under heaps of wood and old blankets and pruning hooks, but there was nothing more. I gathered up the school papers and the picture of the schoolgirl Visnja and her exercise books. I thanked the man and his son and told them they had been kind.

"We are kind people," the old man said and stroked his chin. "I was a Partisan in the war and fought all over eastern Bosnia for the liberation of my country from the Germans. Then in 1992, I was rewarded by being thrown from my home and more than 40 members of my family were slaughtered like animals by the Serbs. Maybe now the Todorovic family would like to swap their property officially with mine."

It was a familiar suggestion in Sanski Most, the careful, painful legalising of "ethnic cleansing", the Serbs and the Muslims swapping property papers to recognise their new refugee homes as their own. I didn't volunteer to take this message to the Todorovic family. Then Mustafa Mahic added suddenly: "It's a strange thing - we are made in the image of God and yet we want so much to destroy each other."

I thanked him again and drove back to the Serb city of Banja Luka, past the young British soldiers and their three tanks on the old front line. It took just over an hour to return and call the Todorovic family on the phone. A cousin answered. She did not care that I had not found the picture of Radovan. Anything from the old home would be dear to Radojka and her husband, she said, translating for the couple at the other end of the phone line.

Yes, Radojka wanted all the papers and the photograph of Visnja, she went on. "Radojka wanted anything from her old home," she added. "I have told her what you have brought and now she is crying."